school lunch vs. lunchbox from home

Topic #112:

Should schools control what kids eat for lunch? Some schools in Chicago now ban lunches from home for health reasons – kids either eat the school food, or nothing. What do you think about this?

I have strong feelings about the kind of food that is generally served in school cafeterias, and even more so now with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution being broadcast on TV. Having worked in several school districts, I’ve seen a variety of school cafeteria food, some good but most pretty disgusting. On the other hand, I have also seen what kids bring from home, some of it good, some of it not. And then there are the kids who don’t eat their lunch, trade it for something they like better,  or throw it away. (I wonder what parents whose kids are on free lunch would say if they knew their kid threw his lunch away every day?)

My first reaction to this topic was ABSOLUTELY NOT – parents have the right to decide on what their kids are going to eat for lunch.

Here are the lunch menu items for next week at my school:

Chicken nuggetsCarrot coins & dip100% fruit juice 
Salisbury steakWhipped potatoesWhole kernel corn
Grilled cheeseTomato soupMixed fruit
Creamy mac & cheeseGarden salad w/ low fat dressingSweet pears
Pizza dippers w/ sauceSeasoned green beansChilled applesauce

 Monday is definitely a high-fat food day – chicken nuggets are mostly fat and breading with a little bit of real chicken; the dip served with the carrots is fattening and unnecessary (why teach kids to eat veggies with dip?) and juice cannot substitute for fresh fruit. Tuesday isn’t bad but “salisbury steak” could be a glorified hamburger patty ground from cheap cuts of meat. Wednesday’s grilled cheese is probably something gross like melted American cheese between two slices of greasy toasted white bread. Mixed fruit is probably one of those fruit cups with pieces of fruit in a concoction that is supposed to be water but actually contains “high fructose corn syrup”. Thursday’s man dish (I have seen this) even smells gross and is certainly high in fat. The salad is probably some boring mix of bits of head lettuce and maybe one cherry tomato crammed into a small styrofoam cup. On Friday they usually like to offer something “fun” and pizza dippers are popular, but they aren’t healthy.

Most of my 2nd graders will be eating what’s on the menu, because most of them are on free lunch. I know that aside from what’s listed on the menu, they have a choice of regular and chocolate milk – the other day I did an informal survey to find out which they preferred; most of course preferred chocolate milk, which has sugar in it! Students who are GIVEN THE OPTION for chocolate milk will choose it (although not all of them) – I probably would too. Also, some time last year, the district started providing the children with apples most days. Many of my students return from lunch with their apples, and I always allow them to eat them.

At the beginning of the school year, I had a talk with the students about bringing healthy snacks to school. I told them that most “galletas” are not acceptable, but since this is the Mexican word for both cookies and crackers, it was trial and error for awhile, as students brought cookies and I had to confiscate them until the end of the day. And I always hand out either pretzels or graham crackers, but a couple of times last week I bought “cuties” – those miniature tangerines that are easy to peel and so juicy and good! They were very popular and I know the kids would love it if I would bring them fruit every day, but I’m afraid it’ll break my budget. Still, if I want to put my money where my mouth is, maybe I should…I can always cut bananas in sections, for example, or hand out a small sprig of grapes.  

Some kids bring healthy snacks to school, such as a package of carrots, or yogurt (although the flavor of yogurt sometimes indicates that there is a lot of sugar in it – still, I allow it because it has some nutritional value). They also bring other kinds of fruit – sometimes mango with hot pepper seasoning on it, grapes, etc. One child didn’t know what a carrot was and I had to show him a picture on the computer – still no comprehension. I found out later he doesn’t like vegetables or even most fruits. The kids tell me he throws away most of his lunch every day! I wonder if his mom knows this. I’m sure she must know he’s a picky eater who won’t eat vegetables in general.

I remember a 3rd grader from last year who was in a power struggle with his mom to eat lunch. She would send his lunch every day and it was gernerally something unhealthy – hot dog sausages or a Lunchable or something similar. He would have to figure out what to take out for snack – sometimes only a Capri bag of juice.

So it isn’t necessarily true that students get healthier food if they bring it from home. Then I read the following article, which was referenced by the Daily Post as the inspiration for this topic, and by the end almost felt sympathetic to the school’s decision. Still, parents should get a choice.

Chicago school bans homemade lunches, the latest in national food fight

By Liz Goodwin

By Liz Goodwin liz Goodwin Mon Apr 11, 12:29 pm ET

Students who attend Chicago’s Little Village Academy public school get nothing but nutritional tough love during their lunch period each day. The students can either eat the cafeteria food–or go hungry. Only students with allergies are allowed to bring a homemade lunch to school, the Chicago Tribune reports.

“Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school,” principal Elsa Carmona told the paper of the years-old policy. “It’s about … the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It’s milk versus a Coke.”

But students said they would rather bring their own lunch to school in the time-honored tradition of the brown paper bag. “They’re afraid that we’ll all bring in greasy food instead of healthy food and it won’t be as good as what they give us at school,” student Yesenia Gutierrez told the paper. “It’s really lame.”

The story has attracted hundreds of comments so far. One commenter, who says her children attend a different Chicago public school, writes, “I can accept if they want to ban soda, but to tell me I can’t send a lunch with my child. ARE YOU KIDDING ME????”

For parents whose kids do not qualify for free or reduced price school lunches, the $2.25 daily cafeteria price can also tally more than a homemade lunch. “We don’t spend anywhere close to that on my son’s daily intake of a sandwich (lovingly cut into the shape of a Star Wars ship), Goldfish crackers and milk,” Northwestern education policy professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach told the paper in an email. She told The Lookout parents at her child’s public school would be upset if they tried to ban homemade lunches.


“I think that lots of parents at least at my child’s school do think that what they pack is more nutritious [than school lunches],” she said.  A Chicago public school teacher started a blog to protest the city’s school lunches, and last year the schools tightened their nutrition standards for cafeteria-served school lunches. Every lunch must contain whole grains, only reduced-fat salad dressings and mayonnaise are offered as condiments, and the meals must feature a different vegetable each day. Meal providers also must reduce sodium content by 5 percent annually. About 86 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced price school lunches because their families live close to the poverty line.


Change in Chicago’s school cafeterias feeds into a larger effort to combat the country’s childhood obesity epidemic. About a third of America’s kids are overweight or obese, and since children consume at least 30 percent of their calories while in school, making lunches healthier is seen as one way to counter that problem. Poorer kids are also more likely to be obese or overweight than middle class kids, and to consume a bigger proportion of their calories while at school. Forty-four percent of American kids living below the poverty line are obese or overweight, according to a 2010 study published in Health Affairs.


While we haven’t been able to track down another school that bans homemade lunches outright, many smaller food battles have been playing out in cafeterias across the country. As principals try to counter obesity in their schools, healthy intentions can come across as overreach, occasionally sparking parent and student anger.


Alabama parents protested a school’s rule that barred students from bringing any drinks from home, as ice water was provided at lunch. East Syracuse, New York schools have outlawed cupcakes and other desserts. And schools around the country have kicked out chocolate milk and soda vending machines. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin even showed up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with dozens of cookies to express her disdain for a debate in the state about recommending teachers limit the number of times per month the sugary treats are eaten in classroom birthday celebrations.


Tucson, Arizona’s Children’s Success Academy allows home-packed lunches–but only if nothing in them contains white flour, refined sugar, or other “processed” foods, the Arizona Republic reported in a story last year. The school has no cafeteria, so some parents told the paper they struggled to find foods to pack that meet the restrictions. Many schools ban fast food or other take-out meals.


Soon, cafeteria offerings across the country will all be healthier, whether students like it or not. Last year’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, calls for higher nutritional standards to serve the 32 million kids who eat lunch every day at school (most of whom qualify for free or reduced price lunches through a federal government program). For the first time, the USDA will set calorie limits for school lunches, and will recommend they contain more vegetables and whole grains, and less salt, USA Today reports. French fries should be replaced by vegetables and fruit, the guidelines say.


The bill also calls for stricter food safety checks on cafeteria food.


This school’s policy is good because it’s aim is to provide students with healthier foods, but it’s just one school – not widespread across the district. How could you enforce such a policy on a large scale? And what about the cost? That appears to be a major factor in the decision-making process about what to offer children to eat at school, and is surely taken into account when making difficult budget decisions, as so many school districts are right now.  

I applaud the efforts of Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver and others (no help from Sarah Palin, who seems to feel compelled to oppose anything the Obamas do, even when it just makes sense). I hope they work, by spreading awareness of the importance of eating healthy, and the knowledge to analyze what’s on the lunch menu. And chocolate milk? Save it for a special treat once in awhile! If the students have only one choice of milk, that is unadultered white milk, they will drink it and guess what? They might even like it!